Finding the “Best” University

On 02/14/2010, in Formal Education, by Jordan Wilson
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I was asked for my thoughts as to whether the benefits of attending an Ivy League university are worth the high cost.

A good question. I am not sure there is a right answer to this, but I can give you my opinion.

Although the questioner asked about the Ivy League, I believe he meant elite schools as a whole.

In this post, we will highlight the “best” schools, the methodology used to rank them, and the criteria I would use to assess schools.

Later we will consider the actual cost-benefit issue.

Ivy League Defined

Ivy League is a term that includes only eight schools: Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, and Yale.

Over time, other universities have attempted to cash in on the historic prestige of the Ivy League. If you do a little googling, you will see universities grouped as Little Ivies, Public Ivies, Southern Ivies, Ivy Plus – maybe even a Poison Ivy grouping for all I know.

When using the term “Ivy League”, many people actually mean the “best” or most prestigious (and, not surprisingly, the most costly) universities.

So we will expand the term to include all the top rated schools and not limit it to only the eight schools listed above.

Which Schools are the “Best”?

For an idea of the current “best” universities, I suggest you review the U.S. News & World Report ranking of the 2009 World’s Best Universities. It uses data from the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings, the most widely cited information used in ranking surveys.

All the Ivy League schools are there, although Dartmouth only managed to be rated 85th. In addition, you will find all the big name universities listed; Cambridge, University College London, Oxford, MIT, to cite just a few.

Considering that my alma mater made the top 60, it must be a finely crafted and precise analysis.

Or not.

If your institute is not listed, do not despair.

What is “best” is highly subjective. People that conduct polls might have their own agendas or even subconscious biases that affect results.

If you search the internet there are many surveys available. When reviewing them, be sure to consider whether there may be any biases impacting the rankings.

Survey Methodologies

You should also review the methodology used to arrive at the rating. Some criteria used might be relevant for your personal needs. Other criteria might be less useful.

The Times-QS study uses a methodology made up of 40% Academic Peer Review (how other academics perceive the school), 20% Student to Faculty Ratio, 20% Citations per Faculty Member, 10% Employer Review (what people hiring thought of the school), 5% proportion of International Faculty, 5% proportion of International Students.

If that is the way you would evaluate universities, the rankings will be a perfect for your own assessment.

For me, I consider advanced education as an investment. Therefore, I am most interested in which school will give me the highest return for the cost.

More Relevant Criteria?

The criteria that interest me are: quality of instruction, how easy it will be to find work after graduation, and the payback period on my education costs.

Quality of Instruction

Quality might be measured by Academic Peer Reviews and Student to Faculty Ratios.

I also want to know Retention (e.g. what percentage of first year students return for a second year) and Graduation Rates. These might indicate that students believe they are receiving a good education if they stay in the system. Or, it may simply mean that the university is a great place to party. In the US, you can get data from sites such as College Results Online.

In Canada, there is less data available online. Maclean’s magazine puts out an annual University Issue which ranks Canadian universities. There has been some controversy over Maclean’s methodology which has led some universities not to participate in the survey.

For other sources of raw data, any university you are interested in should have a website with some or all the necessary information.

I might want to consider less quantitative measures too. For American schools, I would look at subjective student assessments on websites such as Rate My Professors.

Ease of Attaining Employment

In assessing the ability to find work, I would consider the Times-QS Employer Review ratings.

Then I would look at statistics on percentages of students obtaining work upon graduation from a university or faculty I was interested in. I would also try and find data on average starting salaries. I have not seen many good comparisons, but you can try the Payscale College Salary Report for some interesting information.

Again, the university (or faculty) website might have useful data.

Investment Payback

Payback period is important for any investment. How long will it take to recover the costs paid to receive the education? SmartMoney has an interesting article and slideshow discussing payback periods. BusinessWeek also has some data to get you started.

Less Relevant Times-QS Criteria

I am not that concerned about the number of articles my professors have published. Nor am I that interested in the number of foreign professors and students that attend the university. I understand why they are included, but for me they do not matter to any significant degree.

Some of the best teachers I had in university were simply instructors. It was their primary task to teach, not to get published. Some of my worst teachers were highly regarded professors. I felt that many of these individuals spent more time researching and publishing and much less time educating students.

Also, instructors usually have some real world experience which is important. That was lacking at times with certain tenured professors I had. Theory is nice, but having a teacher with practical experience is a positive for me.

As for foreign faculty or students, nice for diversity but how does it translate into a good job for me? Unless I am the foreign student, these criteria are not too interesting to me.

But those are just my thoughts. US News and other surveyors obviously take a different perspective.

Next up, is an elite school worth the cost?

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